“4.48 Psychosis” Explores the Depths of a Depressed Mind
Playwright Sarah Kane once said that she was attracted to the theater because it “has no memory, which makes it the most existential of the arts.” That sentiment is expressed emblematically in her final work “4.48 Psychosis.” The play, staged this past weekend in the ’92 Theater, has no distinct characters, stage directions, or setting; rather, it is a collection of twenty-four scenes on the subject of clinical depression. Because of this, no two productions of the play are at all alike, and that’s what makes it so perfect for Kane’s statement—it’s like a new play every time.
This particular staging of “4.48 Psychosis” was directed by Shelby Arnold ’12 and featured six actors (another thing not specified in the original script—number of actors): Michaela Swee ’12 as “Her”; Matt Alexander ’12 and Julian Silver ’12 as “Him”; and Mark Popinchalk ’13, Mariana Quinn-Makwaia ’14, and Richie Starzec ’14 as “Voices.” It also featured a bizarre and striking stage designed by Noah Rauschkolb ’14 and constructed by master carpenter Matt Getz ’14, with beautiful lighting by Nate Perry ’12. Student music was featured over scene breaks, which took innocent-sounding themes and distorted them in an effort to unsettle the audience.
In fact, unsettling the audience is really what this play is all about. “4.48 Pyschosis” was written shortly before Kane killed herself in 1999 and is in that respect disturbingly autobiographical. The title comes from the time (4:48 a.m.) at which Kane would often wake up in her depressed state. To continue the disturbing connections to the playwright’s life, the method of suicide hinted at and eventually executed by “Her” is almost identical to what Kane actually did to herself.
From my standpoint, “4.48 Pyschosis” is one of the most intellectually troubling and stimulating plays I’ve ever seen. This is due largely not to the words alone, but also to the decisions that Arnold made in staging the play. So many aspects of the production smack you in the face and beg you to find meaning in them, while at the same time completely denying you the possibility of a coherent meaning. This came across in the able performances of Popinchalk, Quinn-Makwaia, and Starzec as the “voices,” presumably in the head of “Her.” I say presumably there because it seems a safe assumption, but really it is impossible to prove. Each of these voices seems to have a personality, to be portraying a certain part of “her” mind—but then they turn around and do something totally opposite to their prescribed character. Similarly, the two actors portraying what seems to be one man imply a duality of personality, one reacting one way and the other completely differently. However, the two men don’t stay consistent in how they react to things, and sometimes the two even move and speak identically.
This confusion might be frustrating in most works, but in “4.48 Pyschosis” it serves to portray the state of mind of someone as severely depressed as Kane seems to have been. The audience is made to feel like nothing is consistent, like nothing can be counted on, because that’s presumably how she felt. Still, there’s danger in presuming anything about this play or its playwright, and it feels insulting to do so.
That being said, sometimes all the chaos in the different sections of the stage got to be a little much, and it was difficult to know where to pay attention. This again might not be a criticism of the production and more a comment on depression, but the play lost something from this confusion.
Due to all of this, much weight was put on the shoulders of lead actress Swee in portraying “Her.” Swee handled the distressing subject matter very well and conveyed the intense tempest of dark, powerful emotions surging through her character with strength and poise. At times, however, her jerky movements grew distracting and almost sucked some of the seriousness out of the air.
Overall, Second Stage’s production of Sarah Kane’s “4.48 Psychosis” serves as a beautiful, moving testament to the author’s legacy—showing that maybe theater can have a memory, even if only for a weekend.